Missing the masterpiece

August 17, 2010

If I make a list of books to re-read, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time will be in the top five. That’s because, even though I read it, I missed it. I know that now, having just finished Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes.  It’s a new book that reveals in wrenching detail Grimes’ rise and fall as a writer. He studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under Conroy, the influential director. More than student and teacher, Grimes and Conroy became close friends, with Conroy also a mentor and father figure to Grimes.

Mentor is a must read for any aspiring novelist to understand the persistence and strength of character needed to survive as a career novelist. Grimes writes intimately about his experiences with agents and editors, his successes and failures with his books and, most poignantly, his interactions with Conroy.  It’s delightful, heartbreaking and ruthlessly honest.

Throughout the memoir Grimes mentions Stop-Time, Conroy’s classic memoir of childhood and adolescence, offering the back story of how it came to be written — such as when Grimes explains the rage behind the words, fueled by Conroy’s failed first novel. But it’s Grimes’ eulogy at Conroy’s funeral in 2005, reprinted in Mentor, that nudged me to admitting I didn’t realize I’d read a masterpiece:

“As a genre, the memoir barely existed before Frank published Stop-Time, which, he once told me, was completely out of sync with its era. Yet the book became a classic because the purity of Frank’s perfect prose not only stops time, but renders time timeless.

“Writing the book exorcised and, at the same time, celebrated his childhood; and by age thirty Frank had fulfilled what Susan Sontag deemed to be the sole responsibility of a writer — to write a masterpiece.”

Stop-Time made Conroy a literary celebrity, although it didn’t make him much money. To this day, 43 years after it was first published, it remains in print. It’s not all that long ago that I read it, but I read it too fast, and without the understanding and insight I gained in Mentor.  

Stop-Time’s original 1967 edition was blurbed by William Styron and Norman Mailer in two fat paragraphs on the back of the book, forecasting its greatness.

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